Lighting the way

Qatar is investing heavily in its IT infrastructure, with energy and education at the forefront of its redevelopment.

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By  Sherief Younis Published  June 2, 2007

Everybody knows much of the Middle East economy is built upon the region's vast oil reserves. Billions of US dollars are pumped into - and out - of the region in what is a lucrative energy business. In this respect, Qatar is like any other country in the Middle East. It sits upon the world's largest natural gas reserves, but like so many of its neighbours, it harbours regional, if not world leading, technological aspirations.

While Saudi Arabia markets itself as the world's premier oil producer, and Dubai portrays itself as the Middle East's business and media hub, Qatar is turning to IT to revolutionise its energy and education sectors as it works towards a knowledge-based society. Qatar has already channelled substantial IT investment into the energy sector with the ambitious Energy City Qatar (ECQ), but there is now a similar level of emphasis on e-platforms as the country looks to pump as much investment into education and its IT infrastructure as it is pumps out energy.

A recent memorandum of understanding signed between ictQatar and Microsoft saw Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer visit the country with the software giant pledging to provide assistance and expertise to Qatar as the country looks to establish an agile technology infrastructure and a digitally connected society.

"This is part of our goal to connect Qatari people to technologies that will enrich their lives, strengthen our economy and create better opportunities for our young people to realise their full potential. With valuable support from Microsoft, we will make positive steps towards becoming a truly digital society," says Dr Hessa Al-Jaber, secretary general of ictQatar.

ictQatar, a policymaking and regulatory body for IT in Qatar, was established in 1994 to aid the technological development of the country as it continues to work towards a knowledge-based society and economy. During that time, the organisation has strived to educate Qatari citizens in the values of IT and has overseen much of the technological transition taking place in Qatar.

However, the emphasis is not solely on utilising IT, there is also a concerted effort from all parties to foster an awareness and working knowledge of the benefits of technology. The recent MoU marked the latest agreement in a number of shared initiatives between Microsoft and ictQatar, with the vendor agreeing to set up a technology innovation centre as part of its ongoing relationship with the organisation. The centre will help build awareness around new technologies, demonstrate learning techniques through technology and share best practice in the effective use of ICT in education has also been promised. According to Mohammad Hammoudi, country manager for Microsoft Qatar, the software giant's pledge marks just one of the commitments Microsoft is making to the country as part of a bigger plan to help the country reach its objective.

"The foundation of our agreement with ictQatar has been in place for a few years for the use of Microsoft technology within the Qatar public sector. The recent agreement was signed to enhance the value of the technology in the community at large and it represents one stage of a three level plan," he says.

Microsoft's primary plan is to establish an infrastructure capable of delivering the services proposed in stages two and three, with an emphasis on educating citizens and creating digital learning platforms to work towards the target of creating a knowledge-based economy.

"The first element is providing the foundation for the delivery of this information to establish a new level of services the government are currently working towards. This is a very important factor, there is currently a lot of work around e-government, e-health: all these kinds of electronic services," Hammoudi says.

"The second layer of the three-tier project places a considerable emphasis on education with a number of projects centered on e-learning and digital learning platforms.

"We are looking to establish a learning ecosystem - from training and support to provision of learning materials - which will help us work towards the third aspect, which is establishing a digital society.

"Qatar wants to work towards a knowledge-based economy. As part of this, all these educational programmes, as well the internet, are tools to help the country achieve this," he says. If the level of investment in the education sector mirrors that of ECQ's - more than US$200 million will be invested into its IT infrastructure over the next three years - Qatar's vision for a knowledge-based society will soon become a reality.

It is a level of commitment that is symbolic not only the level of investment required for Qatar to establish itself as a technological leader in the region, but of the nation's willingness to adopt it.

"I believe the ECQ development is very important to the country; it will be an integral part of the transformation that is going to take place in Qatar," says Mark Fuller, director of IT at ECQ. "I think it will have an impact at a national level, in terms of the economic and social development perspective, and at an oil and gas industry level providing a unique experience as a connected community. From here, I think we can overcome some of the industry's existing problems and frustrations using the latest technology and applications, and with solutions tailored specifically to the oil and gas industry," Fuller adds.

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